Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sanskrit, German and Owls in Athens

After a long time, India has a right wing nationalist government, that does believe in the supremacy of the ancient Hindu culture. And, just in case you don't know, the ancient Hindu religion was often known as "Arya-Dharma", or the way of life of the Aryans, who used a specific religious symbol, the Swastika, quite frequently. It is said that Adolph Hitler was quite influenced by this religion, and incorporated bits and pieces of it into his Nazi ideology. But, that is where the similarity ends.

Decades before Hitler, a scholar with his head screwed on right (as opposed to Hitler), had come to some startling conclusions about the cultural roots of the ancient Indian tribes, and those of Germania. Max Muller, with his comparative studies of ancient religions, had concluded that the Nordic and Indian concepts of God, could be traced back to abstract descriptions, that were later incarnated into "beings" that became gods. Today, Max Muller is celebrated as a scholar who brought two ancient cultures together, and showed them how similar they were, in more ways than one can imagine.

And today, those two cultures are involved in a very public display of discord.

A few years ago, the Indian government had decided to teach German in a chain of government funded schools. In order to stop the "linguistic indigestion" associated with the instruction of too many languages, they had allowed the children to choose between Sanskrit and German, two languages that Max Muller had shown to be more similar than different.  And, it seemed to be working quite well.

As the new government assumed charge, it decided to enforce its old ideology that things ancient and Indian, were superior to things foreign, and that a thorough cultural grounding was required for all Indian kids.  And so, all instruction of German was to be stopped immediately, and replaced with Sanskrit. This has triggered a nationwide debate over if students can choose a language that improves their prospects of employment in a global world, as opposed to choosing a language that provides them with a strong cultural grounding.

Trust me when I tell you that it is an extremely difficult question to answer. I say this with some authority as I have formally studied both Sanskrit and German, and I personally feel that both had a positive influence on me, during my formative years.

Sanskrit was a compulsory language for my generation, which saw very little of a "non-English" foreign language, taught in schools. When we went to college however, we could study such a language, but it would typically be French or German. And by that time, we would already know all the Sanskrit that we could ever learn -- the Shabd Roop of Deva would still occasionally appear in our nightmares, and German would let us understand what the Nazi general in the war movie was up to, when he addressed his secretary as "Meine Liebchen". Both langauges, it seems had their own use, and they were never in direct conflict with each other.

By allowing the replacement of Sanskrit with German, the previous government made an important statement -- that Sanskrit, was expendable. Depending on what you believe in, it may or may not be. One has to ask if the Germans, whose culture we are so willing to adopt, would so easily allow the instruction of an Indian language in their schools, where most of the curriculum is taught in German. If this reciprocal arrangement is not possible, we have to seriously analyze what our kids gain from letting go of a piece of their heritage, in exchange for a language that was never truly theirs. There is a lot of talk about educational and employment opportunities in Germany, but those can still be pursued if someone takes up German in college.  A short course is all one needs to understand what is being said, when it is Auf Deutsch Gesagt.

So, this debate should not be about Sanskrit or German, but about what the policy makers are going to do about the poor kids, who studied German for a couple of years, and would face significant hardship now, if they had to switch to Sanskrit. This is a delicate matter, that can only be remedied with empathy and lenience. And German could still be offered as an optional foreign language, for those, who would like to learn it.

One of the funniest phrases that I ever learned in German was "Eulen nach Athen tragen". Roughly translated, it means "carrying owls to Athens". Apparently, there was once a time when there were too many owls in Athens, and carrying any to this ancient seat of culture was considered a futile exercise. In some ways, this phrase means the same as our famous Indian equivalent of "Ulte bans Bareily Ko", that I once wrote about. Both phrases, refer to a wasteful expense of time, that no one needs to indulge in.

This entire debate on Sanskrit versus German, has indeed been a wasteful expense of time. Perhaps, it is time for us to move on to things, that are more productive. All an owl needs, is a rat to feed on, it doesn't really need to know if the rat is Indian, or German. And it certainly does not mind, if it is taken all the way to Athens, before it is fed.